Pocket Guide to China is a 64 page primer for American soldiers stationed in China during World War II written by unknown personnel of the Special Service Division of the Army Service Forces of the United States Army. The text offers insights into Chinese behavior, cultural values, food, cleanliness, social structure, military capabilities, and everything else an intrepid American spending years in the deep interior of a foreign land might need to know. The Guide is a charming time capsule of old-school liberalism, propaganda, and clunky-yet-earnest cultural tolerance, and while it’s too short for me to write a deep dive, I couldn’t help but do a quick write-up about it.
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Having finished the epic, all-encompassing biographical 33-hour audiobook, Napoleon: A Life, by Andrew Roberts, I knew I wanted to write something about it, but I wasn’t sure what. Napoleon Bonaparte had one of the most accomplished, divisive, big lives of any person in history, which reshaped the way we think about war, politics, revolution, culture, law, religion, and so much more in a mere 52 years. Any one of those elements could (and has) been isolated and made into a massive tome on its own.
So I just set out to describe and analyze all of the things I found most interesting about the man. This includes a summary of his entire life, his personality quirks, unusual events, driving beliefs, notable skills, and more. If there is an over-arching theme to be found, it’s my amazement at how an extraordinarily competent and risk-tolerant individual lived his life up to the greatest heights only to come tumbling back down to earth.
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In Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast on the Mongols, he recounts taking a class in college on Genghis Khan where he wrote a paper about some of the economic benefits of the Mongol Empire’s reign, and his Chinese professors gave him a bad grade for overlooking the tens of millions of people the nomads killed to acquire their massive empire. Carlin argued that the Mongol death toll wasn’t the point of the essay and it was unfair to grade him that way, but the teacher said it was morally inexcusable to overlook blatant genocide in this context.
I had a vaguely similar encounter in college, but in the other direction. I took a class on Mongol history taught by a professor who was famous in the field (he had spent years unsuccessfully searching for Genghis Khan’s body in Mongolia), and he used to make good-natured jokes about how one of his TAs was an unabashed Mongol fan. The TA didn’t just think the Mongols were interesting, he genuinely believed they were a force for good in the world, and when giving lectures he would go on at lengths rattling off the accomplishments and stats of the Mongol Empire, only to be occasionally interrupted by the main professor who would remind everyone that the Mongols probably killed a higher percentage of the earth’s population than any military force in history.
I just finished listening to the audiobook of Jack Weatherford’s book, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. When I started it, I wondered if the publisher forced that rather click-baity title on Weatherford. After all, though it’s a well-written and entertaining account, it is a fairly straightforward historical survey of Genghis Khan’s life and legacy. The book never concisely states what the “modern world” is or how exactly Genghis Khan made it.
But now that I finished it, I think Weatherford may have chosen the title after all, because he is about as pro-Mongol as one can get. And though the book is more of a historical account than an argument for a grand historical/cultural/societal explanation for the modern world, there is a faint outline for such a thing somewhere in there.
Even though I don’t totally buy it, I’ll do my best to explain Weatherford’s argument. I’ll also try to explain how Genghis Khan was so awesome (at least in a purely amoral, achievement-based sense) and why he’s one of the most famous people in all of history.
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